December 31, 2015

Hinkle Fieldhouse has held its share of big games over its 87-year history. The next one could top them all.

The historic venue will pit top 15 teams for only the second time ever when No. 9 Butler hosts 12th-ranked Providence Thursday afternoon in a marquee Big East opener for both surprising programs.

This is a matchup of two of the nation's hottest teams. Butler (11-1) has won eight straight since losing to No. 13 Miami in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title game on Nov. 22 and Providence (12-1) six in a row since falling to top-ranked Michigan State in the Wooden Legacy championship on Nov. 29. Each owns signature wins as well, with the Bulldogs handing then No. 9-Purdue its lone defeat on Dec. 19 in Indianapolis and the Friars dealing eighth-ranked Arizona its only loss Nov. 27 in Anaheim.

Those impressive credentials have created arguably the most anticipated matchup at Hinkle Fieldhouse since Butler's memorable 64-63 triumph over No. 8 Gonzaga on Jan. 19, 2013.

The Friars' success has been less expected, having been picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll after losing 2014-15 conference scoring leader LaDontae Henton. They've done it largely by taking care of the ball and taking it away from the opposition, with reigning co-Big East Player of the Year Kris Dunn leading a group that's committed just 10.2 turnovers per game and forced 15.3.

Reaching that standard figures to be tough against a Butler team that's been one of the nation's most efficient. The Bulldogs, picked third in the conference, rank second in Division I at 89.9 points per game, sixth in fewest turnovers (9.8 per game) and seventh in field goal percentage (51.2).

The Bulldogs, led by accomplished seniors Kellen Dunham (15.6 ppg) and Roosevelt Jones (13.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), have five wins by at least 27 points, the latest Monday's 92-54 blowout of IUPUI that improved them to 20-3 at home since the start of last season.

"Our older guys have shown great leadership throughout this non-conference portion of the schedule," coach Chris Holtmann said. "They've had the right approach and that has led to a terrific non-conference record. We're proud of that. But we also know what's coming. We have some of the best teams in the country in the next few weeks."

Providence's rise has been made possible by the emergence of sophomores Ben Bentil (18.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Rodney Bullock (13.6 ppg, 7.5) and Jalen Lindsey (8.7 ppg) to help ease the burden on Dunn, whose 3.18 steals per game is second nationally.

The Friars come in off a 10-day break following a 90-66 rout of Massachusetts on Dec. 21 in which Bentil posted a career-high 32 points and 12 rebounds.

"To Ben's credit he's really developed and is playing with a purpose,'' coach Ed Cooley said. ''He's a tough matchup. Anybody who can go off the bounce and go inside and out, those are some scary numbers he put up.''

Dunn added 14 points and 11 assists after missing the previous two games due to illness.

The All-America candidate tallied 20 of his 25 points in the second half to rally Providence to a 66-62 victory at Butler on Jan. 6, the Friars' second win at Hinkle in as many years. They're 3-1 in the series since the Bulldogs joined the Big East in 2013-14.

Butler held Henton to eight points and went 20 of 20 from the foul line to win 68-64 at Providence on March 7.

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